William James (January 11, 1842, New York - August 26, 1910, Chocorua, New Hampshire). Philosopher and psychologist.

William James was born in New York, son of Henry James, Sr., an independently wealthy and notoriously eccentric Swedenborgian theologian well acquainted with the literary and intellectual elites of his day. The intellectual brilliance of the James family milieu and the remarkable epistolary talents of several of its members have, since the 1930s, made it a subject of continuing interest to historians, biographers, and critics.

Early years

William James (like his younger brother, Henry James, one of the important novelists of the nineteenth century) received an eclectic trans-Atlantic education, thanks in large part to his fluency in both German and French. His early artistic bent led to an early apprenticeship in the studio of William Morris Hunt in Newport, Rhode Island, but yielded in 1861 to scientific studies at Harvard University's Lawrence Scientific School.

In his early adulthood, James suffered from a variety of physical and mental difficulties, including problems with his eyes, back, stomach, and skin, as well as periods of depression in which he was tempted by the thought of suicide. Two younger brothers, Garth Wilkinson (Wilky) and Robertson (Bob), fought in the Civil War, but the other three siblings (William, Henry, and Alice) all suffered from periods of invalidism. James was, however, able to join Harvard's Louis Agassiz on a scientific expedition up the Amazon River in 1865.

The entire James family moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts after William James decided to study medicine at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital in 1866; he obtained his degree in 1869 after several extended interruptions of his studies for illness, which led him to live for extended periods in Germany, in the search of cure. (It was at this time that he began to publish -- at first, reviews in literary periodicals like the North American Review.) What he called his "soul-sickness" would only be resolved in 1872, after an extended period of philosophical searching.

James's time in Germany proved intellectually fertile, for his true interests were not in medicine but in philosophy and psychology. Later, in 1902 he would write: "I originally studied medicine in order to be a physiologist, but I drifted into psychology and philosophy from a sort of fatality. I never had any philosophic instruction, the first lecture on psychology I ever heard being the first I ever gave" (Perry, The Thought and Character of William James, vol. 1, p. 228).

Professional career

James studied medicine, physiology, and biology, and began to teach in those subjects, but was drawn to the scientific study of the human mind at a time when psychology was constituting itself as a science. James's acquaintance with the work of figures like Hermann Helmholtz in Germany and Pierre Janet in France facilitated his introduction of courses in scientific psychology at Harvard University. He established one of the first -- he believed it to be the first -- laboratory of experimental psychology in the United States in Boylston Hall in 1875. (On the question of this claim to priority, see Gerald E. Myers, William James: His Life and Thought [Yale Univ. Press, 1986], p. 486.)

William James spent his entire academic career at Harvard. He was appointed instructor in physiology in 1872, instructor in anatomy and physiology in 1873, assistant professor of psychology in 1876, assistant professor of philosophy in 1881, professor of psychology in 1889, professor of philosophy in 1897, and emeritus professor of philosophy in 1907.

Among James's students at Harvard were such luminaries as George Santayana, G. Stanley Hall, Ralph Barton Perry, Gertrude Stein, Horace Kallen, Morris Raphael Cohen, Alain Locke, and C. I. Lewis.


William James wrote voluminously throughout his life; a fairly complete bibliography of his writings by John McDermott is 47 pages long (John J. McDermott, The Writings of William James: A Comprehensive Edition, rev. ed. [Univ. of Chicago Press, 1977 ISBN 0226391884], pp. 812-58). (See below for a list of his major writings and additional collections)

He first gained widespread recognition with Psychology: The Briefer Course, an 1892 abridgement of his monumental Principles of Psychology (1890). These works criticized both the English associationist school and the Hegelianism of his day as competing dogmatisms of little explanatory value, and sought to re-conceive of the human mind as inherently purposive and selective.


James defined truth as that which works in the way of belief. "True ideas lead us into useful verbal and conceptual quarters as well as directly up to useful sensible termini. They lead to consistency, stability and flowing human intercourse" but "all true processes must lead to the face of directly verifying sensible experiences somewhere," he wrote.

Pragmatism as a view of the meaning of truth is considered obsolete by many in contemporary philosophy, because the predominant trend of thinking in the years since James' death (1910) has been toward non-epistemic definitions of truth, i.e. definitions that don't make truth dependent upon the warrant of a belief. A contemporary philosopher or logician will often be found explaining that the statement "the book is on the table" is true if and only if the book is on the table.

In What Pragmatism Means, James writes that the central point of his own doctrine of truth is, in brief, that "truth is one species of good, and not, as is usually supposed, a category distinct from good, and coordinate with it. Truth is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief, and good, too, for definite, assignable reasons." Richard Rorty claims that James did not mean to give a theory of truth with this statement, and that we should not regard it as such; however, James does phrase it as the "central point" of the pragmatist doctrine of truth.

Philosophy of Religion

James also did important work in philosophy of religion. In his Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh he provided a wide-ranging account of The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) and interpreted them according to his pragmatic leanings. Some of the important claims he makes in this regard:

Religious genius (experience) should be the primary topic in the study of religion, rather than religious institutions--since institutions are merely the social descendant of genius.
The intense, even pathological varieties of experience (religious or otherwise) should be sought by psychologists, because they represent the closest thing to a microscope of the mind--that is, they show us in drastically enlarged form the normal processes of things.
In order to usefully interpret the realm of common, shared experience and history, we must each make certain "over-beliefs" in things which, while they cannot be proven on the basis of experience, help us to live fuller and better lives.
The investigation of mystical experience was constant throughout the life of James, leading him to experiment with nitrous oxide and even peyote. He concludes that while the revelations of the mystic hold true, they hold true only for the mystic; for others, they are certainly ideas to be considered, but can hold no claim to truth without personal experience of such.

Theory of Emotion

James is one of the two namesakes of the James-Lange theory of emotion, which he formulated independently of Carl Lange in the 1880s. The theory holds that emotion is the mind's perception of physiological conditions that result from some stimulus. In James' oft-cited example; it is not that we see a bear, fear it, and run. We see a bear and run, consequently we fear the bear. Our mind's perception of the higher adrenaline level, heartbeat, etc., is the emotion.

This way of thinking about emotion has great consequences for the philosophy of aesthetics. Here is a passage from his great work, "Principles of Psychology," that spells out those consequences.

"[W]e must immediately insist that aesthetic emotion, pure and simple, the pleasure given us by certain lines and masses, and combinations of colors and sounds, is an absolutely sensational experience, an optical or auricular feeling that is primary, and not due to the repercussion backwards of other sensations elsewhere consecutively aroused. To this simple primary and immediate pleasure in certain pure sensations and harmonious combinations of them, there may, it is true, be added secondary pleasures; and in the practical enjoyment of works of art by the masses of mankind these secondary pleasures play a great part. The more classic one's taste is, however, the less relatively important are the secondary pleasures felt to be, in comparison with those of the primary sensation as it comes in. Classicism and romanticism have their battles over this point. Complex suggestiveness, the awakening of vistas of memory and association, and the stirring of our flesh with picturesque mystery and gloom, make a work of art romantic. The classic taste brands these effects as coarse and tawdry, and prefers the naked beauty of the optical and auditory sensations, unadorned with frippery or foliage. To the romantic mind, on the contrary, the immediate beauty of these sensations seems dry and thin. I am of course not discussing which view is right, but only showing that the discrimination between the primary feeling of beauty, as a pure incoming sensible quality, and the secondary emotions which are grafted thereupon, is one that must be made."

Philosophy of History

One of the long-standing schisms in the philosophy of history concerns the role of individuals in producing social change.

One faction sees individuals ("heroes" as Thomas Carlyle called them) as the motive power of history, and the broader society as the page on which they write their acts. The other sees society as moving according to holistic principles or laws, and sees individuals as its more-or-less willing pawns. In 1880, James waded into this controversy with "Great Men and Their Environment," an essay published in the Atlantic Monthly. He took Carlyle's side, but without Carlyle's one-sided emphasis on the political/military sphere, upon heroes as the founders or over-throwers of states and empires.

"Rembrandt must teach us to enjoy the struggle of light with darkness," James wrote. "Wagner to enjoy peculiar musical effects; Dickens gives a twist to our sentimentality, Artemus Ward to our humor; Emerson kindles a new moral light within us."

List of major works

  • The Principles of Psychology, 2 vols. (1890)
  • Psychology (Briefer Course) (1892)
  • The Will to Believe, and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (1897)
  • Human Immortality: Two Supposed Objections to the Doctrine (1897)
  • Talks to Teachers on Psychology: and to Students on Some of Life's Ideals (1899)
  • The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (1902), ISBN 0300062559
  • Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (1907)
  • A Pluralistic Universe (1909)
  • The Meaning of Truth: A Sequel to "Pragmatism" (1909)
  • Some Problems of Philosophy (1911)
  • Memories and Studies (1911)
  • Essays in Radical Empiricism (1912)
  • Letters of William James, 2 vols. (1920)
  • Collected Essays and Reviews (1920)
  • Ralph Barton Perry, The Thought and Character of William James, 2 vols. (1935) [Contains some 500 letters by William James not to be found in the earlier edition of the Letters of William James]
  • William James on Psychical Research (1960)
  • The Correspondence of William James, 12 vols. (1992-2004)